Who Exactly IS a Shift Worker?

A shift worker is anyone who follows a work schedule that is outside of the typical “9 to 5” business day. In the past few decades the United States has become increasingly dependent upon shift workers to meet the demands of globalization and our 24-hour society. From a competitive standpoint, shift work is an excellent way to increase production and customer service without major increases in infrastructure. Shift workers, include doctors and nurses, pilots, bridge-builders, police officers, customer service representatives and commercial drivers.

double tractor trailer climbing a hill


The main complaint for people with shift work sleep disorder is excessive sleepiness. Other symptoms include:

  • Insomnia
  • Disrupted sleep schedules
  • Reduced performance
  • Difficulties with personal relationships
  • Irritability/depressed mood

Sleepiness/fatigue in the work place can lead to:

  • poor concentration
  • absenteeism
  • accidents
  • errors
  • injuries
  • fatalities

medical staff with stethescope around neck

The issue becomes more alarming when you consider that shift workers are often employed in the most dangerous of jobs, such as firefighting, emergency medical services, law enforcement and security.

Shift Work and Its’ Impact on Health

Sleep disturbance due to shift work potentially plays a negative role in workers’ health, as it can predispose to chronic diseases such as hypertension, stroke, obesity, decreased immunity, cancer, anxiety, and depression.

Female shift-workers are at a higher risk of breast cancer compared to non-shift workers because of the disturbance of their circadian rhythm. There is a decreased release of melatonin and cortisol hormones among night-time shift-workers, which releases a series of inflammatory markers, thus predisposing a woman to a higher risk of breast cancer.

circular sawShift workers are at an increased risk for sleep disturbance and increased shift hours can lead to occupational injuries. Due to fatigue and somnolence, shift workers cannot perform their duties efficiently and the productivity outcome of work is also negatively impacted.

Whether this is related to the fact that shift workers are awake and active during the night hours or because they tend to get fewer hours of sleep overall than traditional workers is not known. Additionally, their personal lives suffer –  shift workers often miss out on important family and social events due to their work schedules.   I experienced this myself – my mother was a nurse and I[‘ll never forget asking her on New Year’s Even when I was 17 – “What are you doing here?” I was so used to her having to work on holidays!

People who work in the transportation industry face some of the most serious challenges. They battle fatigue because of their irregular sleep schedules and endure long tedious hours at the controls or behind the wheel. In fact, research suggests that drowsy driving caused by sleep deprivation is one of the leading safety hazards in the transportation industry.


Unfortunately, treatment for shift work sleep disorder is limited. Both behavioral and pharmacological remedies can help alleviate symptoms. While some research indicates that the body may never fully adapt to shift work (especially for those who switch to a normal weekend sleep schedule), there are ways of getting adequate sleep while doing shift work.


If you are a shift worker and have difficulty sleeping during the day, chances are you also have difficulty staying awake at work. Also, the more sleepy/fatigued you are, the more likely you are to experience a “microsleep,” an involuntary bout of sleep brought on by sleep deprivation that lasts for a few seconds.

Here are some tips for staying alert on the job:

  • Avoid long commutes and extended hours.
  • Take short nap breaks throughout the shift.
  • Work with others to help keep you alert.
  • Try to be active during breaks (e.g., take a walk, shoot hoops in the parking lot, or even exercise).
  • Exchange ideas with your colleagues on ways to cope with the problems of shift work. Set up a support group at work so that you can discuss these issues and learn from each other.